At Large

Hardball in Ukraine

One woman has turned out to be the prime victim of this combat.

By 1.25.13

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There is a presidential campaign in Ukraine due in 2015 and political supporters of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko want her out of jail by then. The current president, Viktor Yanukovich, certainly does not share that view and especially does not want her challenging for his presidential seat. The news just released that the 52-year-old Tymoshenko was being investigated for an alleged role in the murder of a rival businessman and his wife in 1996 is seen by many as a way to keep her incarcerated and thus not a factor in the future Ukraine. To inhibit her ambitions further, even her personal lawyer has been brought up on other unrelated charges. Political life in Ukraine can be dangerous to your health, personally and publicly.

To European and American observers the former prime minister seemed to be right out of central casting. Very attractive and affecting the blonde braids of traditional Ukrainian women, Ms. Tymoshenko had pulled off what initially appeared to be a good deal in 2009 in the pricing of her country’s gas contract with Russia. She even had established a good relationship with the often difficult to reason with Vladimir Putin.

By 2010, however, Tymoshenko had narrowly lost a presidential runoff to Viktor Yanukovich, one time truck driver who had honed his political skills during the Soviet years. In the course of his evolution to top level political operator, he had developed strong contacts with several key Ukrainian business moguls, most important among them the oligarch billionaire, Rinat Akhmetov.

By 2011 the beautiful Yulia was on trial in Kiev for having signed what was now being characterized as a “sweetheart deal” for Russia and economically unfair to her own country. This was an ironic turn of events because it was President Yanukovich who had always been considered rabidly pro-Russian to the point of having been thought of in some circles as a Russian “agent.” At least that’s how his political opponents had always spoken of him.

As odd as all this may seem to the Western observer, it’s quite typical in a country where the former president, Viktor Yushchenko, who assisted by Yulia Tymoshenko’s money and charisma was credited as heroically leading the “Orange Revolution” that ousted Leonid Kuchma, the former strongman of the Ukraine. Yushchenko brought “multi-party democracy,” as the European media had called the new politics of Ukraine. Then in a relatively sharp turnabout from the days of 2004/5, Yushchenko testified against his blonde revolutionary partner at her trial in 2011. He later referred to her role in the gas negotiations with Russia as “criminal by nature.” Of course the fact that Tymoshenko already had stabbed her revolutionary companion in the back by charging his circle with large-scale gas deal corruption tended to sour the relationship.

Shifting allegiances is reportedly as prevalent in the Ukraine as graft in many forms at all levels. Local violations of building, fire, and police codes are said to be solved primarily with appropriate payments to the bureaucrat in charge – not unknown elsewhere, but endemic in Ukraine. Perhaps the most egregious fraud yet revealed is that of the deputy chief of the Ukrainian State Secret Service. He had purchased his college degree after never having even once attended any classes. According to foreign and domestic investors alike, the overall economy of Ukraine suffers from this widespread corruption and slick business deals are the natural way of commerce.

The concept of Ukraine seeking a closer relationship with the European Union remains a popular issue, though recent financial difficulties in the EU have dulled hopes of supporters of that eventuality. The whole idea of the expansion of NATO was dealt a blow by Moscow several years ago. Efforts by Kiev to encourage greater ties with the West have been steadfastly opposed by the Kremlin, though when Yushchenko was president he did succeed in gaining Ukraine’s membership in the World Trade Organization.

Yulia Tymoshenko’s strength internationally always has been based on her brains and beauty. The problem is that both these attributes, after initial success, have been turned against her domestically. Even her Ukrainian braids have been attacked as political charlatanism. She has been accused of being primarily a Russian-speaker, a not unreasonable allegation as her home area of Dnepropetrovsk is mostly Russian-speaking. (Yanukovich also comes from the same region, but no one complains about his Russian fluency.) Even Tymoshenko’s Ukrainian heritage is questioned as her father’s family were all Latvian. Her famous Ukrainian surname is really her husband’s. The braids are her own. Nothing is out of bounds in Ukrainian politics.

Yulia Tymoshenko reportedly has been doing poorly in prison and is now in a hospital ward for treatment of a herniated spinal disc. Yanukovich inadvertently has kept her in the public eye by introducing the possibility of a trial on her alleged role in the 1996 murders. Most analysts agree Ukrainians have come to expect their politics to be on the rough side. There is not much evidence to the contrary.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.